PERSONAL CONSTRUCT PSYCHOLOGY IN A CHANGING EUROPE: 

FROM THE MATRIX OF DECISION TO MULTIPHRENIC IDENTITY

Luis Botella, Ph.D.

Ramon Llull University

Opening Address presented at the Third Biennial Conference of the

European Personal Construct Association

Reading, UK, April 1996

 

When preparing the script for the film version of Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose", the French director of the movie, Jean Jaques Ainaud, told the American producer that the action took place in a European monastery during the Middle Ages. The American producer looked interested at Jean Jaques Ainaud and asked, "a monastery of what religion?"

A couple of years ago my university invited a renowned American expert on human intelligence, with dozens of publications on the subject, to do a talk. While I was having lunch with him, previously to his talk, he asked me whether the audience would rather appreciate an American style presentation or a European style one. Not knowing exactly what the construct entailed in his system, I suggested the American style. Then he produced a piece of paper and said to me, "OK, would you please translate this for me into Spanish". I said yes I would, and he literally asked me to translate the following: "I speak English and a little bit of Spanish, but since none of these languages are your own's, I will present my talk in English, which is my first one". The talk was in Barcelona, and that this distinguished professor knew only Barcelona and Madrid. He was apparently assuming three politically incorrect points (a) that we Catalans are all exclusively Catalan-speaking (and, consequently, non-Spanish speaking), which is false; (b) that all of his audience was made up by Catalan people, which was also false since he had attracted a wide audience of almost 300 attendants from the rest of Spain; and (c) that the audience would love his bold statement, which is also false since many people in Catalonia can feel offended by such a comment. I told him all these, but he couldn't see my point (apparently too confusing when considered from his pre-emptive construct Catalan vs. Spanish) and insisted on opening his address with that assertion. Fortunately the microphone failed briefly when he was reading his provocative remark, and most attendants couldn't hear it. Otherwise, I'm sure he would have caused somewhat similar to a riot. I'm still wondering why he considered such an opening "American-style", but I guess he was trying to amuse the audience and to win their approval in advance--the wrong way, I'm afraid.

I've chosen these two anecdotes since I think they illustrate some of the common misunderstandings and mutual susceptibilities between Americans and Europeans. In this sense, I am reminded of the distinctions between European and American psychologies commented by David Winter in his chapter published at the volume "European Perspectives in Personal Construct Psychology". Some of these constructs seem to me to be applicabe to the kind of situations depicted before; "philosophical vs. empirical", "interested in theories vs. interested in specific issues", "concerned with complex phenomena vs. concerned with elementary mechanisms", and "emphasis on social and political context vs. emphasis on cognitive competencies". You can surely guess which poles are applied to European psychology and which ones to American psychology.

I totally agree with David Winter that all of the European poles are compatible with PCP. In fact, I don't find it meaningful to refer to PCP as an American product (unless one adopts a strictly historical perspective and equates a theory with his or her original creator). In my view, a theory does not "belong" to any national or social group and, ultimately, is nothing but what a group of people does with the theory itself. In this sense, and considering the number and quality of American, European, Australian and other local contributions to PCP, the theory is no more American than European, Australian or, probably, international.

However, when I was writing this contribution I began to realize that it has to do with a deeper issue than the national origins of PCP. It has to do with my own national origin and identity. If we consider tentatively, from a social constructionist point of view, identity as a positioning in a given discourse, what is my identity as a Catalan, Spanish and European Personal Construct psychologist? When I was looking more carefully at Winter's constructs I began to aknowledge that I felt described by both poles at the same time. In fact, both my personal and intellectual development are rendering me increasingly unable to identify myself with any pre-packaged identity discourse. I can think of myself as Catalan in some contexts, but also Spanish, European or even Westerner in others. At the intellectual level, I have no dificulty with thinking of myself as a Personal Construct psychologist, a constructivist, or even a cognitive-constructivist psychotherapist depending on who am I talking to and who am I contrasting myself with. Recently, I even catch me describing myself as a postmodern psychologist, particularly when addressing my older colleagues at the University; this is an almost sure way of intriguing and shocking them at the same time. I think what I'm describing is understandable from a PCP point of view, since a construct is elicited by comparing elements, and changing the context of the elements can also change the applicable construct--I mean that a cat is an animal when compared to a chair and a table, but a mammal when compared to a lizard and a snake.

Looking at me from the context of most developmental theories, I could be probably described as going through an identity crises, which at my age is likely to be diagnosed as dysfunctional. Worse still, from the standpoint of personality theories I guess I am on the verge of a Multiple Personality Disorder, and this is indeed too bad. However, if my own feelings about it count (and they should if we take Kelly's first principle seriously), these state of multiple identity provides me with a releasing sense of excitement. Using the metaphor of postmodernism suggested by the portuguese constructivist Oscar Gonçalves, sometimes I feel like living in an airport (in fact, looking at my travel schedule, sometimes I think I actually live in an airport). I'm beginning to fully experience the wisdom of Kelly's words when he stated that no one needs to be a victim of his or her biography; you can decrease the likeliness of being such a victim if you don't put all your eggs in one identity basket.

Interestingly, when talking about this sort of divided (or maybe saturated) self of mine with my younger colleagues, most of them seem to share my feelings. A doctoral student of mine even told me that she could not clearly identify herself as Catalan or American, but as simultaneously and partially both (which is surprising since she has no trace of American family origins), and that she prefered to describe herself as a "cibernetic citizen". My impression is that such a complexity in personal identity (both in Europe and, probably, in the rest of the Western world) is going to be exponentially increased in a not too distant future. How does this relate to our own identity as European personal construct psychologists and vice versa is what I intend to explore in my contribution.

 

1. The technologies of social saturation in post-war Europe

 

When re-reading Kelly's insights about the situation in Europe in the sixties (in his work "Europe's Matrix of Decision") I could not help to think that some of his visions on national groups were far too simplistic. For example, take the part that concerns me as Spanish: Kelly compared us to bull fighters that stalked him as a matador stalks a bull, making thrusts, stepping neatly aside, dangling false questions, until at last they were satisfied and let him hear what they were bursting all the time to hear. No doubt it's a popular and widespread metaphor, but those of you who had recently visited Spain (or, at least, Barcelona) would have hopefully noted little traces of the bull fighters in us.

I don't think these simplicity is due to Kelly's lack of sensitivity to national nuances, but to the relatively isolated position of most European countries in that period. In fact, the bull fighter metaphor and image were deliberately used at that time as a tourist attraction by the Spanish Government. I was recently watching old familiy movies from 1967 and I was surprised by seeing my little 3-year-old self disguised as a bullfighter (with toy bull included) and wholeheartedly performing a corrida in front of the screen--I even killed the toy bull by pushing it sideways with the toy sword.

My point here is that such an isolated position has shifted dramatically in recent years thank to what Kenneth Gergen calls the technologies of social saturation, i.e., developments in air transportation, television, and electronic communications. As regards to the first item, i.e., air transportation, I was recently shocked to learn that, in 1995, British Airways transported in intercontinental flights a number of passengers equivalent to a third of the total world population (notice that these data correspond to only one company). This is a mindboggling amount of people, particularly when one learns that, in the nineteenth century, the average European citizen lived all of his or her life within a span of 9 kilometers. In this respect, I recall the heading of a British Airways in-flight magazine article: "At any given point in time, there is a nation of travelers". I wonder if Europe is increasingly becoming such a nation of travelers. However, at least two problems are associated with such a traveling status: firts, it obviously is not accesible to everyone and, thus, creates a new source of inequalities, and second, it may lead us, in the long run, to a sense of rootlesness.

As regards to television and electronic communications, global networks such as the MTV, CNN, and Euronews have become customary, as well as, of course, the omnipresent Internet. When I was in Australia during the year of the Xth International Congress on PCP I noticed that the MTV used the term "local" in a funny way; for them, the "local programming" covered the whole of Australia, New Zealand, and a significant portion of Asia, Polynesia, and the Pacific. Well, if that means local how can we Catalans call our humble TV channel, "micro-local network"? As far as the Internet is concerned, I am beginning to wonder how could people organize international congresses, for instance, without it. The answer is probably obvious, but the question is significant. The paradox is that I'm only connected to the Net since a couple of years ago; but qualitatively they look like ages. (One of my younger colleagues asked me a few days ago how could people write a doctoral thesis in the past without a word processor).

I have little doubt that this process of high-tech social saturation is changing our views on such important issues as time, space, and identity. The trend towards globalization maybe world-wide, but it's likely to have different effects and to meet different reactions in Europe than in the United States due to the more complex and culturally differentiated status of our community. In my opinion such a trend cannot be resisted, but careful attention should be devoted to its likely impact in our individual and social sense of identity and values.Questions such as where does this lead us, to universal brotherhood or to chaos, or what will be the future role of our previously cherished national identities are more urgent than never before. Think, for instance, of the recent controversy on whether (and how) to censor certain contents of the World Wide Web, or the acrimonious difussion of personally insulting messages by a member of the PCP E-mail Network, or the increasing emergence of what some sociologists call "cultures of Internet" such as cyberpunks or hackers. Psychology in general, and PCP in particular faces new and exciting challenges in the context of this postmodern culture to which Europe is not alien.

 

2. The construction of a European identity: integration and differentiation

 

In my opinion, the only way to accomodate all these changes in our sense of cultural identity without a deep sense of threat and guilt is to develop a complex (i.e., differentiated and integrated) sense of ourselves as Europeans. This, of course, is not going to be easy. Most of our nations have a tradition of centuries attempting to differentiate from their neighbouring ones, even if this means trying to physically annihilate them. I wish I could speak in the past tense, but we are all painfully and shamefully aware that this is not the case. Thus, as far as differentiation is concerned, I think we Europeans have achieved a more than satisfactory level of it. In my country, for instance, people are increasingly differentiating between Catalan, Basque, and other nationalities, and the debate and controversy on what is the definition of the term "nation" is gaining relevance. During the 1992 Olympic Games, Catalan independentists printed thousands of leaflets that read: "Catalonia is an oppressed nation". Some people from the rest of Spain would not only disagree that Catalonia is oppressed, but also that it is a nation.

However, political attempts to integrate along common lines inevitably meet resistances and reluctancies almost everywhere in Europe. Recently, I saw a TV report on an "experimental " application of the Euro (the future European currency) in a small town in France. As could be expected, many people were reluctant (or plainly refused) to use the Euro instead of the good-old Franc; more familiar, sound, and above all, French.

From a PCP point of view, I think that this reluctance (and any reluctance towards integration) can be interpreted as coherent with a sense of threat, i.e., the awareness of an imminent change in one's core structure. But let's reflect a little on this point; if one feels threatened by any global trend this means that one's core identity has been clustered around a sense of localism and, besides, than "global" is incompatible with "local". I think this needs not be the case, at least if identity is regarded as contextual, as I suggested in my introductory remarks. Can I not be Catalan, Spanish and European at the same time? Well, why not? I think of myself as Catalan when I compare myself with someone from Madrid (or Sevilla, or Bilbao). But I think of myself as Spanish when I talk to someone from another European country (particularly if there's some other Spanish with me), and as European when I am attending an International Congress on whatever and find myself talking to an American in the company of another European. (This line of reasoning could be potentially extended; I noticed what it means to be westerner when I was flying from Bangkok to London and my neighbouring passenger, a New Zealander, said, "Wow, Bangkok is such a noisy and polluted place that I'm glad to get out of it". I agreed with his comment, but apart from the truth or falsity of it, I felt a sense of community with him and could not think of any cultural construct we had in common apart from Western vs. Eastern. I would probably feel the same sense of cultural community with any other inhabitant of this planet if the two of us I could exchange views with an extraterrestrial).

If such a differentiated and integrated European identity is to be achieved, we need to find genuinely common ground for integration, i.e., what we Europeans have in common, or, to put it in Grid terms, why are two Europeans alike and different from a non-European. I believe that such constructs cannot be provided by the experimenter, in this case the European Community policy makers, but need to be elicited by ourselves. This is precisely the point where I get stuck. I can think of myself as similar to another European and different to, say, an American in some respects, but I doubt that such personal constructs are shared by all of us.

However, I think we'd better persist in the attempt to coordinate integration and differentiation, otherwise we risk fragmentation on the one hand and uniformization on the other.

 

3. Multiculturalism and uniformization in contemporary Europe

 

The multicultural status of most of our countries in Europe is undeniable. In Spain, for instance, the economic and political situation had not attracted a significant flow of migrants in the past, but this trend has changed in the last decades and we have now a growing communitiy of people coming from the North of Africa and South America. The reaction to this growing multicultural (and multirracial, multiethnic, multireligious) status has been mixed. On the one hand, it's being dramatically and violently opposed by small but very active groups of skinheads. Criminal acts against individuals or communities because of racial prejudices, while isolated, are not rare. On the other hand, this very kind of racist violence has generated a growing social movement against racial prejudice, chiefly clustered around left-wing parties, human rights movements, peace and environment organizations, the Catholic Church, and even punks and squatters.

Prejudice against South American people in Spain is, in my opinion, particularly illustrative of the origin of such an attitude. Most South Americans living in Spain come from countries such as Argentina or Chile, and are not racially distinguishable from me or any other Spanish. The only way to distinguish them is their accent. But, of course, the origin of such prejudices is not ultimately the discourse of white supremacy, but the irreflexive attempt to attribute unemployment and other structural social issues to the presence of foreign citizens among us. Again, the threat aroused by anything that's different is having dramatic effects. In this respect, skinhead groups in Spain also address their violent actions against homosexuals, transvestites, the homeless, or supporters of a different football team. I was recently struck by watching an interview with a skinhead teenager imprisioned for having killed a transvestite, who justified his action by stating that killing homosexuals was not a crime but a sport. The situation I'm depicting is not unknown to other countries in Europe, and I think it can be read as an extreme reaction against multiculturalism.

However resisted, multiculturalism and globalization is ultimately inevitable, and is having a subtle effect in our sense of local identity. Some theorists have coined the term "the MacDonaldization of Society" to refer to this progressive uiformization of the Western world. As fas as Europe is concerned, I'm increasingly struck by the growing simmilarities between our major cities in terms of architectonic style, urban developments, shops, restaurants, transportation, and so on. This is probably due to the emphasis placed during the 60's and 70's upon the "International Style" of architecture, now refused by postmodern architects. The good thing about uniformization is that one can feel at home almost everywhere (the best Spanish tapas I've ever eaten were served at the restaurant of the Melia Hotel in Alice Springs, in the middle of Australia). The drawback, in my opinion, is the loss of the genuine excitement that our grandparents probably felt when travelling to such exotic places as Paris or Rome.

I'd like to emphasize the term "inevitability", since I really think that the trend towards an interconnected and global world is not reversible. Consider, for instance, a day in my academic life (although I'm well aware that this is just a particular example, I find it illustrative):

- I arrive in the morning at my office at the University and the mail awaits: someone from Ben Gurion University of the Negev (at Israel) requests a reprint of a work of mine published in English in an American book; I have a fax from a colleague at the University of Seville who is asking me about the dates of a forthcoming workshop by a colleague from Canada in order to inscribe some students; a postgraduate student from Argentina tells me that she'll be in Rome next week and whether I'll be able to meet her there since I'm spending my Easter hollydays in Italy as well; of course, the E-mail is seeething with more messages than I can process, most of them from abroad.

- I spend a couple of hours teaching an undergraduate class on psychotherapy. While I teach in Catalan, most of the authors I refer to are American, and most of the references in my students program are in English. One of these students is a country'n'western music enthusiast, he attends my lectures in full cowboy attire (including hat and spurs); his folder is covered with pictures of Garth Brooks, but his name is undeniably catalan.

- I see ten or twelve undergraduate students who are conducting research projects on such diverse topics as eating disorders, family reactions to the death of a child, or perceptual rigidity in obssessive-compulsive disorders. My students are beggining to acknowledge the usefulness of the English language when they realize that at least 80% of the relevant literature is published in English. One of them, who is conducting a project on Spanish serial killers and has located most of his basic references in a London bookshop, informs me that he's going to Jamaica next term because he has found a job at the Departament of Psychiatry at a Hospital in Montego Bay.

- In the evening I coordinate a postgraduate program on constructivist psychotherapy. I have to talk to one of the professors (who happens to be a Catalan nationalist) in order to politely convince him of teaching in Spanish. The reason is that four (out of 20) of my postgraduate students do not understand Catalan. Two of them are from Argentina, one from Colombia, and one from Mexico. However, this causes some problem since one of the other students do not speak Spanish (although she undertands it), she is from Algeria and is married to a Catalan, and she only speaks French and Catalan.

While my everyday life seems to me postmodern enough, things are even more confusing when me or my colleagues organize some international event. I recall having to translate a lecture of Oscar Gonçalves from English into Spanish while, at the same time, Manuel Villegas was translating into Italian. The reason was that the audience was made up by (a) Spanish postgraduate students, (b) Italian students from Padova, enrolled in the Spanish postgraduate's degree, and (c) Portuguese colleagues of Oscar. There were some really funny aspects in the experience. First, Oscar is Portuguese but he did chose to speak English because neither Manuel nor myself could translate him from Portuguese to either Spanish or Italian (since we don't speak Portuguese). Second, Manuel doesn't speak as good an English as Oscar, so he couldn't uderstand Oscar's words directly; he had to wait for my translation into Spanish and then translate my translation into Italian--I guess in the end the Italian version and the original one were slightly different. Third, some of Oscar's Portuguese colleagues couldn't understand English, so they were trying to guess from the similarities between Italian, Spanish and Portuguese what Oscar was saying. Fourth, Oscar was concerned that people would not laugh at his jokes when he told them, since they had to be translated. He soon realized that actually the audience laughed in three phases: first the ones who could understand Oscar directly in English, then the ones who were following my translation into Spanish, and then the ones who were following Manuel's translation into Italian. After three hours of lecture (including role-playing of therapy sessions with therapist and client speaking different languages) I ended up not knowing precisely what language was I using, and creating a personal blend of English, Spanish and Italian. My personal Esperanto should have sounded strange and familiar at the same time, since at the end of the lecture one of the Portuguese students of Oscar addressed me and asked where had I learned to speak such a funny Portuguese.

Beyond the mere anecdote, my point here is how are we to find a common ground to accomodate such a diversity. How are we going to be able to converse and to celebrate our commonalities while at the same time allowing for individuality (and celebrating it as well). Ultimately, I think that we are forced to reflect on values and identity, two subjets badly neglected by a postitivist vision of science in general and psychology in particular that has fostered the false impression that science could be morally and politically neutral.

 

4. PCP's positioning in psychological discourse

 

When teaching PCP and constructivism, I've repeatedly been asked whether it is a relativistic approach. What leads students to that conclusion is probably the strong emphasis that the theory places on understanging people in their own terms. Apparently, understanding is equated with agreeing with, since once you understand another person's construct system, it's increasingly difficult to judge his or her actions from an outsider's point of view. A particularly dramatic example of that misunderstanding happened to me recently. I was talking to a group of doctoral students about the research project on serial killers I refered to previously. I described my student's findings on serial killer's autobiographical discourse and highly strutured process of victim selection and ritual killing. My emphasis on the internal coherence of such a discourse disoriented and even shocked some of the doctoral students, and finally one of them asked me if I was suggesting that serial killers were right in their views. I was deliberately avoiding concepts such as right or wrong, and just trying to illustrate that one's actions can only be fully understood in the context of the options that his or her construct system offers. Of course I think that the actions of a serial killer are deeply reprehensible, although not because they are objectively wrong, but because they are socially harmful. The distinction between objective truth and social consensus may appear subtle, but in my opinion it's fundamental, since it makes the difference between authoritarian epistemologies and participatory ones.

Thus, even aknowledging that most of our constructions are parts of a bigger and socially generated game, we can, as Kenneth Gergen suggests, play seriously. There's nothing superficial or trivial in this definition of social interaction as a game. It is precisely by playing serioulsy with each other that we derive such fundamental processes as our sense of identity, values, feelings, or actions.

In my view, the interplay between social interaction and personal construction has not received the attention it deserves in PCP. I'm increasingly aknowledging that the process of validation or invalidation of a personal construct is almost always a social one, I mean that confirming or disconfirming evidence comes from the reactions of significant others (the supporting cast for our personal narratives, in social constructionist terms). Thus, whether a construct is social or personal is not really at issue, since even if its locus is personal, the process of validating or invalidating it is inevitably social.

The picture that emerges from that view is one of a socially constructed world, admittedly subjective, in which participants gain their sense of identity and values by seriosly playing within their limits even if they know that this is just one possibility among many others. I think this picture is coherent with the postmodern sense of multiphrenia (defiend a s a population of the self by social identities) and, simulatenously, is not a relativistic one. When one accepts the rules of a given game, one is also accepting his or her own responsibility in not violating them.

To develop a complex European identity entails negotiating the rules of our common game. More specifically, to develop our identity as European personal construct psychologists entails negotiating the rules of our game. Personally, I would like them to be the rules of a participatory and equalitarian game, one in which all of us, irrespective of our personal origin, could feel included (vs. excluded). I would also like them to be the rules of a significant game, one addressed at changing our reality and the reality of those less fortunate than us; of those who suffer the atrocities of war, poverty, or prejudice. I would like our game to be played with enthusiasm, with conviction, with hope in our possibilities to construct a better future for our children. I would like our game to be refreshing, even irreverent, always engaging.

In the long run, I'm so ambitious as to wish that our game contributes to renewing psychological science, rendering it more socially and politically sensitive to the dilemmas of contemporary life and less concerned with its being a science. These were the values that attracted me to PCP when I was a student, these are the values that I try to communicate to my students and clients, these are the values that still guide my actions and I hope they will in the future. No doubt, they have to do with our being Europeans and belonging to a tradition of humanism and multiculturalism but, at the same time, they have to do with our being simply but fully human beings.